An ancient controversy surrounded a Christian apocryphal book called Acts of Paul and Thecla. While St. Thecla was revered a great deal in the past, she’s become less recognizable among Christians over time. Many know the Apostle Paul and his companions mentioned in the Pastoral Epistles well, and the popularity of those books may have something to do with why Thecla is relatively unknown today. Studying the interaction of these texts reveals a struggle for orthodoxy that many never knew took place.
What does Acts of Paul and Thecla say? Are the Pastoral Epistles a forgery? Was Acts of Paul ever considered New Testament canon? This video attempts to answer these questions and more.
Dr. Ian Mills
The Clobber Verses
Let me just say right off the top, three of the verses that are sometimes considered clobber verses have nothing to do with the question of homosexuality. Putting Genesis 2:21-25, Deuteronomy 23:17 and Jude 1:6-7 in the category of anti-gay verses is nothing more than an attempt to beef up the number of verses that are supposedly “against” homosexuality. They have nothing to do with it. So, I am simply going to ignore them. If someone attempts to use them as proof of the “abomination” of homosexuality, I suggest you simply ignore them as well.
The great thing about defending the Bible against people who want to use Genesis 19:1-11 to gay bash is that you really don’t have to do any work. The Bible does it for you. For better or for worse, this is also the verse with which the general population is probably most familiar in terms of what they think of as verses about homosexuality. Even the term “sodomy” is linked to this Bible passage.
It is the story of two travelers (messengers from God) being given shelter by Lot and his family. Hospitality was a very big deal in those days. In this story, the men of Sodom decided to approach Lot’s home and to make less than hospitable demands on him and his guest. To get a sense of how important hospitality was, when the men of the town say they want to force themselves (most likely sexually) on Lot’s guest, Lot actually offers up his daughters instead. Despicable, deplorable, a great way to permanently damage your relationship with your daughters and the rest of your family (to say the least), but a sure sign that hospitality was a big deal.
In the end, the men of the town did not get what they wanted. They wanted to exert their dominance of the guests. They wanted to humiliate them, as warriors after conquering a foe might do in those days, sexually putting another male into the position of a woman (who after all was thought of as property, as weak, and as soft and therefore less than a man).
Even though the men never actually exerted their power over Lot’s guests in a male-male sex act, people still insist on using this text as proof that homosexuality is an “abomination.” Well, like I said, “the great thing about defending the Bible against people who want to use Genesis 19:1-5 to gay bash is that you really don’t have to do any work. The Bible does it for you.”
Sodom is referenced multiple times in the Bible as an example of great sinning. And what might that sin be?
In Isaiah 1:10-17 it is thought to be injustice, not rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow. In Jeremiah 23:14 it is adultery. In Ezekiel 16:48-49 it is the sin of not aiding the “poor and needy.” In Zephaniah 2:8-11 the sin is bullying, boasting and pride. In the Wisdom of Solomon it is “the bitter hatred of strangers.”
The sin is not about being gay. It is not about non-straight sexual orientation. The sin of Sodom was lacking hospitality, not being just, bullying, hating strangers, not caring for those marginalized. Funny, they are all things Churches (and individuals for that matter) sorely need to keep in mind and be better at practicing when it comes to how we do or do not welcome LGBTQ folk into our lives. After all, in today’s society, who is more marginalized, more bullied, more treated like a “stranger,” than them? Come to think of it, not so funny.
If someone were to canonize a buzz-kill, it would look remarkably, and uncomfortably, like the book of Leviticus. Honestly, this three-thousand plus year old holiness code is not exactly a big ball of fun. For starters, just try reading it. On second thought, I like you, so don’t. Fortunately for you, I’ve done it for you. (I know, nice. Right? I’m just that kind of guy).
Among the jewels you’ll find in it are a mandate to kill disobedient children, a dietary restriction to not eat shellfish (God Hates Shrimp!), a law that would prevent bowl-cuts (or “rounding off the side-growth of your heads” – and to think I liked the Beatles), direction to not touch or eat the flesh of a pig (no bacon and cheddar soup for you!), and a prohibition on the rhythm method of birth control (you know who you are!). Oh, and presumably, gay sex (which, of course, is why I bring it up).
The section of Leviticus where we find the clobber verses is often called the Purity Code. “Purity” was mostly about two things. First, it was about keeping things the way they “should” be. “Should” is in quotes because the guidelines they used for what should and shouldn’t be were mostly made up. Said differently, they arrived at their conclusions in a time that didn’t have any science or at least not science like we have today. Which is to say, they didn’t have any science.
What they had was mostly superstition based on observation. A big part of this purity code was the idea that the world is consistent or follows particular preset rules. For the Israelites this meant things like: all fish have fins, animals with divided hooves chew cud, and male sperm contains the whole of life (women provided the incubation chamber). When things didn’t adhere to this particular three-thousand year old way of understanding the world, they were considered an abomination or more precisely impure.
The second thing the purity code did was define the Israelites as purely not Canaanites. That is, much like many Christians receive the mark of a cross on their forehead on Ash Wednesday or give something up for Lent, the codes in Leviticus helped define the people of Israel as the people of Israel. For the Israelites it was particularly meant to define them as not Canaanites. Basically, it’s a way of showing “we are not them.”
It is true that there are other reasons for many of the laws (just like there are many other reasons to give something up for Lent), but these are two of the larger ones, and they are ones that most directly apply to these clobber verses.
So what do we, presumably enlightened Christians of a scientific age, do with this code? Clearly shrimp are good to eat (for most of us). For that matter, as far as I’m concerned, to borrow from an old Benjamin Franklin quote, they are proof that God loves us* – that’s just how darned delicious they are.
What we do is recognize Leviticus for what it was: a good thing for the people of God based on how they understood the world some three-thousand years ago. Interestingly enough, when it comes to things like shellfish, eating and touching pigs, cutting our sideburns and beards, and stoning children who mouth off to their parents, we have already managed to do exactly that. Why? Because we understand that they are just flat out silly laws. Not all “fish” have fins. Some come in the shape of pink commas and are delicious with a nice Riesling. Because not all split hooved animals chew cud. Some roll around in the mud and make breakfast just that much better. For that matter, wrap them around a shrimp, throw them on the grill. I promise you, God will not smite you and once you bite into them you’ll agree, they are not an abomination (they might, however taste slightly “impure” if you do not devein them well).
What many people have not been able to do is extend that simple understanding to these clobber verses. We have already established that it would have been impossible for these texts, or any biblical text, to be about sexual orientation. However, they do clearly describe a male-male sex act (sorry ladies, this one’s just for the guys). But what we have to begin to understand is that the issues which these specific laws presumed to address within their society, much like the other laws I’ve mentioned here, are no longer recognized as true.
Scholars have pointed to various reasons for ancient Israel’s seeing male-male sex as taboo in Leviticus. It may be the same reason the rhythm method was thought to be wrong in the eyes of God, which presumably is that, as I have mentioned, they thought sperm contained the whole of life (how typically male-dominated-society of them). Therefore, in their way of seeing it, “Every sperm is sacred. Every sperm is great. If a sperm gets wasted, God gets quite irate.” On the other hand, it may be that they thought it was taboo because it went against their understanding that mixing of kinds, just like the mixing of two kinds of cloth was taboo. Male-male sexual relationships, in that way of seeing things, mixes up their understanding of gender roles.
Whatever the reason, the perspective in these clobber verses were based on an understanding of sex and sexuality that was just as misinformed as their understanding of the earth in relationship to the sun, of fish, of pork and of reasons for stoning children. In our scientific age, it is time to let go of archaic perspectives and start recognizing the things that are truly an abomination in the eyes of God: lacking in compassion and love, exercising judgment against others, and practicing and encouraging hate.
(*The actual quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin is, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Sadly, while Ben most probably enjoyed a mug of beer from time to time, the actual quote is, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” In a happy coincidence, the same rains nourish the barley and hops that are changed into beer. In an even happier coincidence, wine and beer both pair exceptionally well with shrimp. God is good).
Good news ladies! Up until now, all of this clobbering has been about the guys. In Romans, you get to join in. Lucky you.
Romans is the one place the Bible speaks specifically about a female-female sex act. If you listen to Bible Thumpin’ Gay Bashers, you’d be surprised to learn that, while the counts vary on how many places the Bible directly address heterosexual relationships, it is a lot. Then again, compared to the precisely one verse the Bible has about female-female sex, even two is one hundred percent more.
The number of heterosexually oriented verses isn’t exactly clear. One thing is really clear, there’s plenty of them and, much like the Levitical purity code, we’ve managed to ignore many of them. So, if you aren’t also denouncing the divorced, then get off your lesbian judging high-horse, because otherwise you are just picking and choosing who to judge out of your own accord, and then quoting the one Bible verse that seems to support your choice. And even then, as we will see, it doesn’t actually support your argument. It actually does just the opposite.
In Romans, we have the most extensive discussion of same-sex intercourse in the Bible, a whole two seemingly specific verses – astounding.
There are plenty of approaches to understanding what Paul is trying to teach us in these texts. Any good exegesis ultimately points to the reality that what Paul is talking about and what people who use these verses as clobber verses want Paul to be talking about aren’t the same thing. That is, this is not about homosexual people having consenting homosexual relationships.
One convincing analysis of these texts looks at the fact that one of the most prevalent forms of same-sex sex in the Greco-Roman world was male prostitution which frequently involved boys. In that analysis, the texts become a condemnation of pederasty and prostitution, things of which most Christians (conservative to liberal) disapprove even today. There is also the perspective that Paul’s pointing to same sex intercourse as being idolatrous could be referring to the practices of priests and priestesses of Mediterranean fertility gods who regularly practiced that type of prostitution but elevated it, within a religious context, to the state of idolatry. Those approaches are valid and mostly convincing perspectives, but they do require a small leap of logic to arrive at their conclusions. Much less of a leap of logic, mind you, than believing that these texts are about something of which people at that time had absolutely no comprehension, but slight conjecture all the same.
The analysis that I find the most convincing concerns itself with the word “natural.” It is the word that has led many to speak of LGBTQ behavior as “unnatural” acts even though they occur throughout nature (in one study they were found in more than fifteen-hundred species).
As it turns out, the word is actually not “natural.” Not surprisingly, Paul did not speak English. While Paul performed a number of miraculous things, speaking English (which wasn’t around even in its earliest Prehistoric Old English form yet) was not one of them. Not to bore you too much, but the word Paul used was the Greek word, physikos. (Now that didn’t hurt too much, did it?).
It’s important to know the word in Greek because when it is translated into English, it loses a little of its original meaning. Without even knowing it, Lady GaGa has provided a better modern and contextual translation of physikos than the frequently used translation of “normal.” We will get to that in a minute. It doesn’t mean “natural” or “nature” so much as it means “produced by nature.” Those who use these verses as clobber verses tend to understand “natural” to mean something closer to “normal” than “produced by nature.” Not surprisingly, they also then define what is and isn’t “normal” based on their personal biases rather than on science or the reality of the world around them (e.g.: “I think gay people make me feel creepy, so I henceforth do hereby dub it as an act of not-natural.”).
In reality, physikos has more to do with how things naturally occur in God’s Creation. At this point, you may have begun to guess that physikos is based on the same root word from which we get the word “physics” which is, of course, the study of the realities of nature. Conveniently, the way Paul uses physikos here in Romans, it also means something very similar to “the realities of nature.” It is concerned with what is of our nature and not with what is defined as acceptable. That is to say, Paul is concerned with how God created something or someone to be. He is concerned with people going against their nature or in the words of Lady GaGa herself, if they are “born that way” he’s concerned with them behaving as if they were not.
That is the sin here in Romans, acting against the very nature of who God created you to be. In this case he seems to be addressing the idea of a same-sex sex act in which at least one of the two are not attracted to someone of the same sex; they just are not born that way.
Understood this way, it would be equally sinful for someone who is only attracted to someone of the same sex to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. It goes against their nature; they just weren’t born that way. Ironically, those telling LGBTQ folk that these verses mean they have to stop being LGBTQ folk are actually telling them to commit the very sin against which these verses warn, going against their nature. God has a wicked sense of humor.
Because these texts have been used so much to address homosexuality, it was important to address the issue directly, but the worst thing we could do is to think it is primarily about homosexuality. It is not.
Immediately following verse 28, Paul provides an extensive list of sins. It is so extensive that we all fall into at least one of the categories. “So there you have it,” says Paul, “we all sin. Don’t try to deny it.” And let’s face it, we all go against who we know we were created to be. How many times have you done something, felt guilt or shame, and then said, “I shouldn’t have done that. That’s not who I am.”?
As Paul says in the very next chapter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As he also says to start that chapter, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
So, remember back a few paragraphs ago when we talked about a Greek word? And remember how it didn’t even hurt one little bit? Good. We are going to do it again.
I have put the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy clobber verses together because they both use a particular Greek word in a particularly similar way. The word is arsenokoitēs and it means “male prostitute.” (Behold the Greek scholarship. See that it is good and rejoice). Actually, it could also mean “the customer of a male prostitute,” or “boy molester” or “someone who abuses themselves with a man” or “using sexual manipulation to acquire money” or … (eh hem, “Behold the great and powerful Greek Interpretation!” <insert flashing light and crashing thunder>).
So, the word in these two verses, that is frequently interpreted as “homosexual” (which is absurd because, in Greek, it is clearly only a word referring to men) or “sodomite” (which is absurd, among other reasons, because that was not the sin of Sodom, as we have already discussed), is really difficult to translate. Why? In part, because it is only found in these two places and also, in part, because it is entirely possible that it is a made up word. It is very likely that Greek speaking Jews created this word to port a Hebrew word to Greek and over time the meaning has been lost. So, it is just hard to translate. So difficult, in fact, that scholars can’t agree on a single best translation. What most biblical Greek scholars can agree on is that it is not meant to be a blanket statement about a male-male sex act. Moving on.
There is another word used in 1 Corinthians 6:9: malakos. The good news about this word is that it is found in lots of literature, so there are plenty of references about its typical intended meaning. It literally means “soft.” Some say it means “soft” as in “effeminate, but not in terms of sexual orientation.” Others, say it is connected with being wasteful of sexual and financial resources. Still others convincingly point to it singling out a particular type of male prostitution involving young boys. Also in the list of contenders: sexual perverts, sodomites, weaklings, the self-indulgent. (“Behold the great and powerful Greek Interpretation!” <insert flashing light and crashing thunder>). Like with arsenokoitēs there really is no expert consensus on this.
Malakos was a word that could be used to refer to things as diverse as men who were weak in battle (or who were “soft”), to men who lived extravagant and pampered lives (or who were… well, “soft”). It was not specifically about sexual relationships. If Paul was actually trying to describe something about a submissive male in a male-male relationship (which is still not the same as homosexuality as we understand it today), it’s very likely that he would have used kinaedos, which was frequently used to describe that very relationship. But he didn’t. So, stop acting like he was.
In summary of my look at the Christian Church’s use of the clobber verses, if you want to call homosexuality a sin, go ahead. But you are going to have to admit that it is not biblically a sin. Which means you are also going to have to admit that you are calling it a sin simply because that’s what you want to do. Because of that, you are going to have to admit that you are a sinner for using God’s name for false pretenses (it’s a little thing we like to call using God’s name in vain). And then, Paul has something to tell you, “…you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1).
I have actually had a theist tell me this is a good thing because it makes a rapist take responsibility for their actions. Of course, they don’t mention how the woman might feel about it, but do they really care?
I was entertained by the wording of the biblical passage:
“28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.”
So, it’s only punishable if the girl is a virgin and not betrothed. So I guess you cannot rape a non-virgin or someone betrothed. So if it’s not called rape in those cases, what is it called?
They are only required to marry if the rapist gets caught in the act. So I guess getting away with rape makes it OK according to the Bible, no witness to the crime. I guess in typical Christian misogyny, the woman doesn’t count.
And finally, they cannot be divorced. So the woman is stuck with her rapist for the rest of her life. Oh, what a joyful union (heavy sarcasm) that must be.
Jon takes examines Phil Vischer’s video “Race in America.”
The Judgment of Solomon is a story from the Hebrew Bible in which King Solomon of Israel ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting to cut the baby in two, with each woman to receive half. With this strategy, he was able to discern the non-mother as the woman who entirely approved of this proposal, while the actual mother begged that the sword might be sheathed and the child committed to the care of her rival. Some consider this approach to justice an archetypal example of an impartial judge displaying wisdom in making a ruling.
1 Kings 3:16–28 recounts that two mothers living in the same house, each the mother of an infant son, came to Solomon. One of the babies had been smothered, and each claimed the remaining boy as her own. Calling for a sword, Solomon declared his judgment: the baby would be cut in two, each woman to receive half. One mother did not contest the ruling, declaring that if she could not have the baby then neither of them could, but the other begged Solomon, “Give the baby to her, just don’t kill him!”
The king declared the second woman the true mother, as a mother would even give up her baby if that was necessary to save its life. This judgment became known throughout all of Israel and was considered an example of profound wisdom.
Classification and parallels
The story is commonly viewed in scholarship as an instance or a reworking of a folktale. Its folkloristic nature is apparent, among other things, in the dominance of direct speech which moves the plot on and contributes to the characterization. The story is classified as Aarne-Thompson tale type 926, and many parallel stories have been found in world folklore. In Uther’s edition of the Aarne-Thompson index, this tale type is classified as a folk novella, and belongs to a subgroup designated: “Clever Acts and Words“. Eli Yassif defines the folk novella as “a realistic story whose time and place are determined … The novella emphasizes such human traits as cleverness, eroticism, loyalty, and wiliness, that drive the plot forward more than any other element”.
Hugo Gressmann has found 22 similar stories in world folklore and literature, especially in India and the far east. One Indian version is a Jataka story dealing with Buddha in one of his previous incarnations as the sage Mahosadha, who arbitrates between a mother and a Yakshini who is in the shape of a woman, who kidnapped the mother’s baby and claimed he was hers. The sage announced a tug war: He drew a line on the ground and asked the two to stand on opposite sides of the line, one holding his feet and the other his hands – The one who would pull the baby’s whole body beyond the line would get him. The mother, seeing how the baby suffers, released him and let the Yakshini take him, weeping. When the sage saw that, he turned the baby back to the hands of the true mother, exposed the identity of the Yakshini and expelled her. In other Indian versions the two women are widows of one husband. Another version appears in the Chinese drama The Chalk Circle (in this version the judge draws a circle on the ground), which has been widespread all over the world and many versions and reworkings were made after it, among them The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht.
The common motif in those different parallels is that the wise judge announces an absurd procedure, which is reasonable in some perverse way: Splitting the baby, according to the principle of compromise; Or a tug war, in which one can possibly assume that the true mother will be motivated to pull harder. But this procedure is actually a concealed emotional test, designed to force each woman to decide whether her compassion to the baby overpowers her will to win.
There is indirect evidence that the story was widespread in ancient times in the western world too. A Greek papyrus fragment, dating from the beginning of the second century AD, includes a fragmented reference to an ancient legal case which is similar to the judgment of Solomon. The writer ascribes the story to Phliliskos of Miletos, living in the fourth century BC. A fresco found in the “House of the Physician” in Pompeii depicts pygmies introducing a scene similar to the biblical story. Some think that the fresco relates directly to the biblical story, while according to others it represents a parallel tradition.
Several suggestions for the genre of the biblical story have been raised, beyond its characterization as a folktale of a known type. Edward Lipinski suggests that the story is an example of “king’s bench tales”, a subgenre of the wisdom literature to which he finds parallels in Sumerian literature.
Scholars have pointed out that the story resembles the modern detective story genre. Both king Solomon and the reader are confronted with some kind of a juridical-detective riddle. Meir Sternberg notes that two genres merge in the story: A riddle and a test; The juridical dilemma, which is the riddle, also constitutes a test for the young king: If he will solve it he will be acknowledged to possess divine wisdom. Stuart Lasine classifies the story as a law-court riddle.
According to Raymond Westbrook, the story is essentially a hypothetical problem, introduced to the recipient as a pure intellectual challenge and not as a concrete juridical case. In such problems, any unnecessary detail is usually omitted, and this is the reason why the characters in the story have no distinctive characteristics. Also, the description of the case eliminates the possibility to obtain circumstantial evidence, thereby forcing the recipient to confront the dilemma directly and not seek for indirect ways to solve it.
Some scholars think that the original folk story underwent significant literary reworking so that in its biblical crystallization it can no longer be defined as a folktale. Jacob Liver notes the absence of any “local coloring” in the story, and concludes that the story is “not an actual folk tale but a scholarly reworking of a folk tale (apparently from a non-Israelite source) which in some way reached the court circles of Jerusalem in the times of Solomon”. Similarly, Jeev Weisman characterizes it as “a wisdom anecdote which originated in the court circles”.
The story has a number of parallels in folktales from various cultures. All of the known parallels, among them several from India, have been recorded in later periods than the biblical story; nevertheless, it is unclear as to whether they reflect earlier or later traditions. Hermann Gunkel rules out the possibility that such a sophisticated motif had developed independently in different places. Some scholars are of the opinion that the source of the story is untraceable.
In the biblical version, the two women are identified as prostitutes, as opposed to some Indian versions in which they are widows of one husband. Some scholars have inferred from this difference as to the origin of the story. Following Gressmann, Gunkel speculates a possible Indian origin, on the basis that “[s]uch stories of wise judgments are the real life stuff of the Indian people”, and that, in his view, “a prostitute has no reason to value a child which was not born to her“; he acknowledges, however, that the Indian versions “belong to a later period”. On the other hand, Lasine opines that the Hebrew story is better motivated than the Indian one, for it is the only one in which the motivation for the behavior of both women is rooted in typical motherly feelings: compassion for the true mother, and jealousy for the impostor. Other scholars point out that such a travelling folktale might become, in its various forms, more or less coherent; the assertion that one version is more coherent than the other does not compel the conclusion that the first is more original. Consequently, the argument as to which version’s women had more compelling reasons to fight over the child would be irrelevant.
Composition and editorial framing
The story is considered to be literarily unified, without significant editorial intervention. The ending of the story, noting the wisdom of Solomon, is considered to be a Deuteronomistic addition to the text.
Some scholars consider the story an originally independent unit, integrated into its present context by an editor. Solomon’s name is not mentioned in the story, and he is simply called “the king”. Considered out of context, the story leaves the king anonymous just like the other characters. Some scholars think that the original tale was not necessarily about Solomon, and perhaps dealt with a typical unnamed king. A different opinion is held by Eli Yassif, who thinks that the author of the Book of Kings did not attribute the story to Solomon on his own behalf, but the attribution to Solomon had already developed in preliterary tradition.
Scholars point out that the story is linked to the preceding account of Solomon’s dream in Gibeon, by the common pattern of prophetic dream and its subsequent fulfillment. Some think this proximity of the stories results from the work of a redactor. Others, such as Saul Zalewski, consider the two accounts to be inseparable and to form a literarily unified unit.
In its broader context, the Judgment of Solomon forms part of the account of Solomon’s reign, generally conceived as a distinct segment in the Book of Kings, compassing chapters 3–11 in 1 Kings; Some include in it also chapters 1–2, while others think that these chapters originally ended the account of David’s reign in 2 Samuel. According to Liver, the source for the Judgment of Solomon story, as well as other parts of the account of Solomon’s reign, is in the speculated book of the Acts of Solomon, which he proposes to be a wisdom work which originated in the court circles shortly after the split of the united monarchy.
The story may be divided to two parts similar in length, matching the trial’s sequence. In the first part (verses 16–22) the case is described: The two women introduce their arguments, and at this point, no response from the king is recorded. In the second part (23–28) the decision is described: the king is the major speaker and the one who directs the plot. Apart from this clear twofold division, suggestions have been raised as to the plot structure and the literary structure of the story and its internal relations.
As stated before, most of the story is reported by direct speech of the women and Solomon, with a few sentences and utterance verbs by the narrator. The dialogues move the plot forward. The women’s contradictory testimonies create the initial conflict necessary to build up the dramatic tension. The king’s request to bring him a sword enhances the tension, as the reader wonders why it is needed. The story comes to its climax with the shocking royal order to cut the boy, which for a moment casts doubt on the king’s judgment. But what seems to be the verdict turns out to be a clever trick which achieves its goal, and results in the recognition of the true mother and the resolution.
The major overt purpose of the account of Solomon’s reign, to which the Judgment of Solomon belongs as stated above, is to glorify King Solomon, and his wisdom is one of the account’s dominant themes. The exceptions are: The first two chapters (1 Kings 1–2), which according to many scholars portray a dubious image of Solomon, and as stated above, are sometimes ascribed to a separate work; And the last chapter in the account (11), which describes Solomon’s sins in his old age. Nevertheless, many scholars point out to elements in the account that criticize Solomon, anticipating his downfall in chapter 11.
In its immediate context, the story follows the account of Solomon’s dream at Gibeon, in which he was promised by God to be given unprecedented wisdom. Most scholars read the story at face value, and conclude that its major purpose is to demonstrate the fulfillment of the divine promise and to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom expressed in a juridical form. Yet some scholars recognize in this story too, as in other parts of the account of Solomon’s reign, ironic elements which are not consistent with the story’s overt purpose to glorify Solomon.
Some scholars assume, as mentioned, that the story had existed independently before it was integrated into its current context. Willem Beuken think that the original tale was not about the king’s wisdom – the concluding note about Solomon’s wisdom is considered secondary – but about a woman who, by listening to her motherly instinct, helped the king to break through the legal impasse. Beuken notes additional biblical stories which share the motif of the woman who influenced the king: Bathsheba, the woman of Tekoa, and Solomon’s foreign wives who seduced him into idolatry. Beuken concludes that the true mother exemplifies the biblical character type of the wise woman. He proposes an analysis of the literary structure of the story, according to which the section that notes the compassion of the true mother (verse 26b) constitutes one of the two climaxes of the story, along with the section that announces Solomon’s divine wisdom (verse 28b). According to this analysis, the story in its current context gives equal weight to the compassion of the true mother and to the godly wisdom that guided Solomon in the trial.
According to Marvin Sweeney, in its original context, as part of the Deuteronomistic history, the story exalted Solomon as a wise ruler and presented him as a model to Hezekiah. Later, the narrative context of the story has undergone another Deuteronomistic redaction that has undermined Solomon’s figure in comparison to Josiah. In its current context, the story implicitly criticizes Solomon for violating the biblical law that sets the priests and Levites on top of the judicial hierarchy (Deuteronomy 17:8–13).
Several stories in the Hebrew Bible bear similarity to the Judgment of Solomon, and scholars think they allude to it.
The most similar story is that of the two cannibal mothers in 2 Kings 6:24–33, which forms part of the Elisha cycle. The background is a famine in Samaria, caused by a siege on the city. As the king passes through the city, a woman calls him and asks him to decide in a quarrel between her and another woman: The two women had agreed to cook and eat the son of one woman, and on the other day to do the same with the son of the other woman; but after they ate the first woman’s son, the other woman hid her own son. The king, shocked from the description of the case, tore up his royal cloth and revealed that he was wearing sackcloth beneath it. He blamed Elisha for the circumstances and went on to chase him.
There are some striking similarities between this story and the Judgment of Solomon. Both deal with nameless women who gave birth to a son. One of the son dies, and a quarrel erupts as to the fate of the other one. The case is brought before the king to decide. According to Lasine, the comparison between the stories emphasize the absurdity of the situation in the story of the cannibal mothers: While in the Judgment of Solomon, the king depend on his knowledge of maternal nature to decide the case, the story of the cannibal women describe a “topsy-turvy” world in which maternal nature does not work as expected, thus leaving the king helpless.
The women’s characters
Like many other women in the Hebrew Bible, the two women in this story are anonymous. It is speculated their names have not been mentioned so that they would not overshadow Solomon’s wisdom, which is the main theme of the story. The women seem to be poor. They live alone in a shared residence, without servants. The women have been determined to be prostitutes. As prostitutes, they lack male patronage and have to take care of themselves in a patriarchal society.
The women’s designation as prostitutes is necessary as background to the plot: It clarifies why the women live alone, gave birth alone and were alone during the alleged switch of the babies; The lack of witnesses seems to create a legal impasse that only the wise king can solve. It also clarifies why the women are not represented by their husbands, as is customary in biblical society. Solomon is depicted as a king accessible to all of his subjects, even those in the margins of society. The women’s designation as prostitutes links the story to the common biblical theme of God as the protector of the weak, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalms 68:5). Prostitutes in biblical society are considered functional widows, for they have no male patron to represent them in court, and their sons are considered fatherless. They also bear similarity to the proselyte, who is sometimes mentioned in the Hebrew Bible with the widow and the fatherless, in that they are socially marginalized and deprived of the right to advocacy. They can only seek justice from one place: God, embodied in the story as the source of Solomon’s wisdom.
The women are not explicitly condemned for their occupation, and some think that the narrator does not intend to discredit them for being prostitutes, and their conduct should be judged against universal human standards. On the other hand, Phyllis Bird thinks that the story presupposes the stereotypical biblical image of the prostitute as a selfish liar. The true mother is revealed when her motherly essence – which is also stereotypical – surpasses her selfish essence. Athalya Brenner notes that both women’s maternal instinct is intact: For the true mother it is manifested, as mentioned, in the compassion and devotion that she shows for her son; And for the impostor it is manifested in her desire for a son, which makes her steal the other mother’s son when her own son dies. According to Brenner, one of the lessons of the story is that “true maternal feelings … may exist even in the bosom of the lowliest woman”.
The women are designated in the Hebrew text as zōnōṯ (זוֹנוֹת), which is the plural form of the adjective zōnâ (זוֹנָה), prostitute. However, some propose a different meaning for this word in the context of the story, such as “tavern owner” or “innkeeper”. These proposals are usually dismissed as apologetic. Jerome T. Walsh combines the two meanings, and suggests that in ancient Near East, some prostitutes also provided lodging services (cf. the story of Rahab).
Comparison to detective literature
As mentioned before, many scholars have compared the story to the modern genre of detective story. A striking feature in the biblical story, untypical to its parallels, is that it does not begin with a credible report of the omniscient narrator about the events that took place before the trial; It immediately opens with the women’s testimonies. Thus, the reader is unable to determine whether the account given by the plaintiff is true or false, and he confronts, along with Solomon, a juridical-detective riddle. According to Sternberg, the basic convention shared by the Judgment of Solomon and the detective story genre is the “fair-play rule”, which states that both the reader and the detective figure are exposed to the same relevant data.
Lasine, dealing with the story from a sociological perspective, points out that like the detective story, the Judgment of Solomon story deals with human “epistemological anxiety” deriving from the fact that man, as opposed to God, is generally unable to know what is in the mind of other men. The detective story, as well as this biblical story, provides a comfort to this anxiety with the figure of the detective, or Solomon in this case: A master of human nature, a man who can see into the depths of one’s soul and extract the truth from within it. This capability is conceived as a superhuman quality, inasmuch as Solomon’s wisdom in judgment is described as a gift from God. There is an ambiguity concerning the question whether such a capability may serve as a model for others, or it is unavailable to ordinary men.
By the end of the story, Solomon reveals the identity of the true mother. But according to the Hebrew text, while the king solves the riddle, the reader is not exposed to the solution; Literally translated from the Hebrew text, Solomon command reads: “Give her the living child…”. One cannot infer from this wording whether the word “her” refers to the plaintiff or to the defendant, as the narrator remains silent on the matter.
According to the Midrash, the two women were mother- and daughter-in-law, both of whom had borne sons and whose husbands had died. The lying daughter-in-law was obligated by the laws of Yibbum to marry her brother-in-law unless released from the arrangement through a formal ceremony. As her brother-in-law was the living child, she was required to marry him when he came of age or wait the same amount of time to be released and remarry. When Solomon suggested splitting the infant in half, the lying woman, wishing to escape the constraints of Yibbum in the eyes of God, agreed. Thus was Solomon able to know who the real mother was.
Representations in art
This theme has long been a popular subject for artists and is often chosen for the decoration of courthouses. In the Netherlands, many 17th century courthouses (Vierschaar rooms) contain a painting or relief of this scene. Elsewhere in Europe, celebrated examples include:
- Fresco by Raphael
- The Judgement of Solomon by William Blake
- Etching by Gustave Doré
- Woodcut by the school of Michael Wolgemut in the Nuremberg Chronicle
- Paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Poussin and Franz Caucig
- Relief sculpture on the Doge’s Palace in Venice by an unknown artist (near the exit into St. Mark’s Square)
- Stained glass window by Jean Chastellain in St-Gervais-et-St-Protais church of Paris
Marc-Antoine Charpentier : Judicium Salomonis H 422, Oratorio for soloists, chorus, woodwinds, strings, and bc. (1702)
Giacomo Carissimi : Judicium Salomonis, Oratorio for 3 chorus, 2 violins and organ.
The scene has been the subject of television episodes of Dinosaurs, Recess, The Simpsons (where a pie was substituted for the baby), the Netflix animated series, All Hail King Julien, where a pineapple is cut in two to settle a dispute, the Seinfeld episode “The Seven“, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It has influenced other artistic disciplines, e.g. Bertolt Brecht‘s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Ronnie snatching Kat’s baby in EastEnders.
The HIM song “Shatter Me With Hope” includes the line “We’ll tear this baby apart, wise like Solomon”.
The Tool song “Right in Two” slightly paraphrases the scene and includes the lyric “Cut and divide it all right in two”.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.